Safeguarding food safety and animal health in Virginia

BLACKSBURG, Va., March 8, 2005 – Virginia Cooperative Extension is gearing up for a major educational effort to assist with a national animal identification program, which will provide greater protection for human and animal health.

Public interest in such an identification system is growing after a number of animal-disease outbreaks around the world, and after the single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy found in the U.S. in 2003.

Virginia Cooperative Extension is well equipped to provide the educational component of this important program, said Jim Riddell, Extension's assistant director for agriculture and natural resource programs. Extension specialists in animal, poultry, dairy and veterinary sciences, and geospatial applications will provide training for Extension agents, who will deliver educational programs through 107 local Extension offices across the state.

"Virginia Cooperative Extension has a vital grassroots role to play in the animal ID program," said Richard Wilkes, state veterinarian. "It has direct interaction with Virginia's animal producers. Extension agents will answer the questions and guide farmers through the procedures and animal tracking programs."

Riddell said the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) ultimately will allow the trace-back and trace-forward capability within 48 hours, using a database to track the animals from birth to market. "What we are looking for is an efficient and straightforward process that enables us to protect our livestock industries and ultimately our food supply," said Riddell.

Dee Whittier, Extension specialist in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, said, a disease outbreak could occur naturally or as a result of agro-terrorism. "Either way, an identification and tracking system would have tremendous benefits," Whittier said.

"The underlying concern is that consumers in the U.S. and around the world have a safe food supply," he added.

Riddell said animal identification is a top priority for Virginia Cooperative Extension. All of the agriculture and natural resource agents will receive animal identification training in March. After the training, the agents will begin local educational programs. Riddell said he expects local Extension offices to be the focal point for citizens' questions and requests for assistance.

Scott Greiner, Extension beef specialist in Virginia Tech's Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said, "We know that producers have a lot of questions. They want to know the details on what is supposed to happen, how it is to be done, and what the impact is on them. There is a real need for education about this and that's where Extension will play a major role."

The national system will identify individual animals or groups of animals and will record their movements throughout their lives. The system is being developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), livestock industries, state agencies and land grant universities.

Finding animals early in a disease outbreak is essential to contain the disease, to ensure public health and to minimize the impact on domestic and foreign markets. Overall, the system will limit the scope and expense of the outbreak.

Early versions of the identification system focused on food animals only, but other non-traditional livestock species are being incorporated into the plans. Working groups are developing systems for aquaculture, camelids (llamas and alpacas), cattle/bison, cervids (deer and elk), equine, goats, poultry, sheep, and swine.

The possibility of spreading disease becomes a factor whenever people show or commingle their animals with those from other premises, such as at fairs or trail rides. Those animals will need to be identified.

The program will identify both individual animals and the premises where animals are kept. Geospatial information systems will allow officials to pinpoint the exact location of an outbreak as well as other nearby premises where a disease might spread, Riddell said. This would help contain the any outbreak to a small, limited area.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is beginning the premises ID part of the program. It will identify the location of all livestock operations in the state, including commercial and backyard herds and flocks, and concentration points such as livestock markets, fairs and competitions. Livestock owners may register by calling (804) 786-2483 or e-mailing One can also register online at

For information on educational programs about the animal identification program and the premises registration check with your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office, which can be found at

If an outbreak should occur, federal officials will need immediate and reliable information to track suspect animals and identify other animals that may have been exposed. The National Animal Identification System will contain only information necessary for animal health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and state partners have pledged to protect data confidentiality. Additional information on the NAIS can be found at: